Awake in the dark: Welcoming the season of Advent  | Advent I | December 3

It’s impossible to know with certainty why the birth of Jesus came to be linked to the date we now celebrate it, December 25.  Early Christians didn’t find it particularly important to celebrate at all.  They focused instead on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospels link those to the Jewish festival of Passover, in the spring.  By the year 200, various writings suggested the date of Jesus’ birth to be January 2, March 25, April 18 or 19, May 20, November 17 or 20.  (Elesha Coffman, “Why December 25?”. Christianitytoday.com. August 8, 2008).

Add in December and you’ve got half the months of the year.

The date of December 25 became more solid in the West in the fourth century, as the church increasingly took on the role of being the glue that held together the Roman world.  December 25 had been the Roman date for the winter solstice, the longest night, shortest day, of the year, when the dwindling sunlight began to reclaim hours of the day.

In the fourth century the North African bishop Augustine said this in his Christmas sermon: “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (Augustine, Sermon 192).

Of course, had Augustine been a South African bishop, he would have needed to find a meaningful connection between Christ’s birth and the summer’s longest day, when the most light shines on the earth.

Regardless, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, the birth of Christ, and the season of Advent leading up to it, now correspond with the darkest days of the year.

We regularly associate darkness with the bad, and light with the good.  It fills our language, and thus our imagination.  Darkness is something from which to escape, a symbol of evil, or at minimum, something undesirable and incomplete.

This gets deeply problematic when attached to the racial history of our country, whiteness constructed as a form of dominance over blackness and brownness.

This Advent, and this sermon in particular, is an invitation into the darkness of the season.  The darkness of rest.  The darkness that provides a canopy for solitude and the richness of the inner lfe.  The darkness in which our brains consolidate the events of the day and make new pathways, the foundation of creativity. The darkness of the womb, Mary’s womb, which births Christ.  The womb of the Divine Mother, who births new worlds into being.  The darkness which wraps the light in its embrace.

Hear now several brief reflections, paired with music, scripture, and verses from the song “Joyful is the dark,” HWB 233.  Settle in.  Allow yourself to enter the darkness that is God’s gift to us.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 1

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Reading: John 1:1-5, 14

Reflection: “Dark Advent” poem

“Dark Advent,” by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina.

First, there’s one word in this poem that needs a brief explanation.  It’s the word tehom.  It’s a Hebrew word that appears in Genesis chapter one.  It refers to the deep, the watery abyss out of which creation emerges.

Genesis 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of tehom, the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

“Dark Advent”

In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
She was and is God,
all of life born through her.

She flashes rays of darkness
and the whiteness does not overcome her
because in her is life
and her life is flesh
like midnight.

In the dark
her eyes flicker tehom
and her chest trembles mine
with the quiet of the most high.

We have seen her glory:
a raven’s black sheen,
beauty’s shadow.

Violin: Joyful is the dark

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 2

Joyful is the dark, spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Reading: Mark 13:24-27

Reflection

Whenever, in the Gospels, Jesus quotes a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, my NRSV Study Bible gives the reference in the notes section.  It’s a nice feature, a frequent reminder that Jesus’ speech is peppered with borrowed phrases.  In Mark 13:24-25, when Jesus speaks those ominous words about sun, moon, and stars going dark, the powers in the heavens shaken up, the note section looks like a family reunion of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Daniel, Zechariah, even the non-biblical book of 2 Esdras gets an honorable mention.  And here’s why: When Jesus says these words, it’s not so much that he’s quoting any particular one of them.  It’s that he’s piecing them together, evoking the entire apocalyptic stream of the prophetic tradition.  Because if there’s one thing the prophets can agree on besides the importance of doing justice, it’s that the whole system that holds us in its grasp is teetering on the edge of collapse.

So begins the liturgical year in the church.  So begins Advent.

“In the beginning was the end,” a collapse of everything.

Or, not everything.  Just the things that appear to be most stable.  The fixtures that order our days.  The rhythms we set our clocks to.  Like the moon, and the stars, the sun.  The prophets forecast poetic darkness.  Only after this collapse, after the darkness receives all the broken pieces of the day, only after this, will the Human One come and create anew.

For Mark’s original audience, the collapse of their world was the Jewish temple being destroyed by the Romans.  It was part of the Roman strategy, shock and awe to put down the Jewish rebels trying to reclaim their homeland through guerilla style warfare.

The rebellion didn’t work.  When the temple was destroyed, with it went the symbolic universe the structure had upheld.  It was both a crisis of politics, and a crisis of meaning.  The fixture that orders life is no more, the powers in the heavens are shaken, the sun goes dark.  The cell phone battery goes dead and Siri’s voice fades.  You have no map for this road.  You’re driving blind.

Vocals: Joyful is the dark, verse 5

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thunder-cloud of glory, holy, haunting beauty, living, loving God.  Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Reading: Mark 13:28-37

Reflection

Here’s the hardest thing: When the sun is darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling from the heavens, and the great powers in the heavens and the earth are shaken – The hardest thing is to keep awake.

Not the kind of awake where you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep., restless because of everything.  That kind of awake is easy, too easy.  That kind of awake is exhausting.

The hardest thing is the kind of awake where you’re alert, paying attention, mindful.  Awake like the Buddha.  Awake like Christ.  Awake, as in woke.

As it goes, apocalyptic moments, apocalyptic times, are not all that rare.  We live through multiple apocalypses.  The world we thought we knew collapses.  The light we thought was guiding our way goes away, and we’re left in the dark.

After that mashup of the prophets, a dozen dark flavors of apocalypse, Jesus turns his disciples’ attention away from collapse and toward a tree.  A fig tree.  When all else fails, find a tree.  Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.  When it’s winter you can’t see the life within it.  You can’t observe the roots weaving through the dark soil, but watch.  Watch for its branches to become tender.  When they do, they’ll put out leaves, as if from nowhere, and you know summer is near.

The key, the hardest thing, is to keep awake in the dark.

Jesus goes on to name the watches of the night through which the disciples must keep awake.  “Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep.”

These are the same watches of the night narrated in the following chapter, Mark 14, when Jesus gathers with his disciples for their last supper in the evening, and they go to Gethsemane at midnight, and Peter denies Jesus at the cockcrow, and the chief priests consult on Jesus’ fate at dawn.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again asks the disciples to keep awake.  It’s the hardest thing to do when your world is collapsing.

Sometimes it becomes too much, and we need companions to keep awake for us.

Vocals and Violin: Joyful is the dark, verse 4, verse 3

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning.  Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed stable floor; angles flicker, God of earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Reading: Luke 1:46-48

Reflection

In the beginning darkness hovered over the surface of tehom.  This is the foundation of creativity and new life.  The first Sunday of Advent speaks of the end of worlds, the tragedy of collapse, the possibility that the darkness that follows provides the shelter in which the new creation is born.  Like a womb.

And so it’s Mary who serves as our chief guide through this season.  Mary, the unsuspecting Palestinian Jewish teenage peasant girl.  Mary, who said Yes to the divine messenger without fully knowing what she was committing to.  Mary whose body becomes a temple, a sanctuary for God.  Mary, within whom Christ is formed.

The outlines of this story will take on color in front of our eyes this season.  You can take it home and add your own colors.  There is a life growing within Mary.  “In her is life /and her life is flesh / like midnight.”

There is a life growing within us.  Like the fig tree.  The darkness embraces us, like deep down soil around roots.  Like silence.  No one knows the day or the hour of this great birth.  Stay awake in the dark.

Let’s hold silence for one minute, after which we’ll sing together all five verses of “Joyful is the dark.”

Congregational Song: Joyful is the dark, verses 1-5

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“Wisdom has built her house” | November 12

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-6; Matthew 11:28-30

There is a house with a table, set for company.  On this table is a feast: Wine and bread and meat.  Everything that makes for a good meal.

The doors of this house open wide, always unlocked, ready to receive whoever walks in.

It’s not a secret.  It’s not a hidden place, tucked in some out-of-the way grove.  There are no fences or gates, no passcodes.

The owner of this house is Wisdom.  She built it.  She set up the posts, leveled the beams, designed the way this room flows into that one.

Wisdom has built her house and gives an open invitation.  She walks through the city, calling out.  She cruises the countryside, searching for takers.  She opens her contacts and selects “Send All.”  Wisdom has issued an invitation:  Come to me, feast, rest, learn.

Even better, the house that Wisdom built will come to you.  Look for it, and there it is.  Occasionally it shows up when we’re not even looking.

A few weeks back I had one of those all too rare moments where I may have briefly stepped inside this house and glanced around.

Back in the spring when I was writing the Sabbatical grant I included funds for a new bike.  Thankfully, the Lilly Foundation deemed this worthy of Sabbatical activity.  They issued the full grant check, with the encouragement to begin making purchases and reservations and whatever else in preparation for next summer’s Sabbatical.  So on a Monday afternoon in the middle of October, Abbie and I headed down to Baer Wheels, on High Street, to purchase a bike I had been eyeing.

This moment began with a stray thought, about half way down the sidewalk, looking at the trees on the street.  It was a beautiful fall day and even though the trees still had almost all their leaves, I found myself already missing them.

Then another thought: It’s a Monday, my Sabbath.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside and these trees are stunning.

It’s a Sabbath, it’s a lovely day among these trees and I’m healthy and going for a walk down a beautiful street, and I’m sharing this with someone I love.

It’s a Sabbath, and it’s a beautiful day outside, and the trees, and I’m healthy and going for a walk down this beautiful street with my wife whom I love.  And all our children are at school, good schools, learning important things.  And we’re walking to a bike store.  Not driving to a bike store, walking to a bike store right around the corner from where we live.  And I’m going to buy a bike, with other people’s money.

How in the world could I almost miss this moment?

If I can’t be grateful and feast on the goodness of this moment, then I have officially lost at the game of life.  I turned to Abbie and said just as much.  She agreed.

So maybe it took all of those factors to finally hear the invitation, but I heard it.  Hopefully you’ve heard it at least once.  We glimpse that house that’s been waiting for us.  We step inside for a bit.  The single dimension of the line of time, in which we so frequently move from point A to point B and on to points C and D…the line of time takes on width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The second and minute hands keep moving, but there’s still something there, something that feels almost like a place, to walk around, even explore, or sit and rest for a while.  Even, have a meal.

Seventy years ago Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined the phrase a “sanctuary in time.”  He was referring to the Jewish Sabbath.  While other ancient cultures focused on holy objects, holy spaces, holy buildings, it was the peculiarity of the Jewish tradition, Heschel wrote, to focus on the holiness of time.  The sanctification of time.

Writing in early 1945, with the bullets and bombs of World War II still flying, the death camps still exterminating his people, Heschel wrote, “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space.  It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence.” (Sabbath, p. 3)

Heschel pointed back to Genesis 1, in which the heavens and earth are created.  The first thing Elohim the Creator declares to be holy is not an object of creation, not even us amazing humans, but the Sabbath.  Time.  “So Elohim blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”  Elohim creates a sanctuary in time, a cathedral.

Or, to tie it back in to Wisdom, a house.

“Wisdom has built her house..and set her table,” Proverbs 9 says.

Wisdom is one of the unsung heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures, or at least under-reported.  In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is speaking in the first person.  She says, “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).  As this passage would have it, even before Genesis 1, Wisdom was.  Wisdom playfully accompanies and assists in the process of creation.

When that singular, unimaginably dense point of pure possibility goes bang, it is through Wisdom that the cosmos takes on length and width and height and becomes a place to dwell.  The house that Wisdom built is made possible in space, and appears to us in time.  Wisdom is a way to live, not just as biological creatures that are born and die along the vast timeline of history, but to live well, as  spiritual beings.  To consciously live in communion with the same Spirit that created and creates us.

Like that rare moment when you realize that everything around you is a gift.  The moment holds you there and extends the feast.

The book of Sirach didn’t make it into the Hebrew Bible, but it was known and influential by the time of Jesus.  In Sirach, Wisdom again speaks for herself and says, “Come to me, all you who desire me and eat your fill of my fruits” (24:19).  Later it says about Wisdom, “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by” (52:26).  It’s Wisdom back in invitation mode, calling out, inviting, maybe even pleading.

So when Jesus evokes those words in the passage that we read from Matthew, he’s evoking the entire Wisdom tradition, inviting people in the same way that Wisdom invites all people, to enter into the sanctuary in time that he offers.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good (a better translation than “easy”), and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

This invitation goes out to all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.

Somewhere along the path of life we all qualify.

We pick up burdens that aren’t ours to carry.  They accumulate like software on a hard drive, things we thought we needed, cluttering our lives and slowing down processing speed.

Or we have other people’s burdens loaded onto us.  A loved one’s addiction catches us between wanting to love and support them while also trying to avoid enabling behavior.  A perpetrator’s sexual violence becomes a survivor’s trauma, weighted with shame and confusion.

Or sometimes there are loads so generationally ingrained and socially pervasive they hide in the very patterns we assume to be normal.  In 1899 Rudyard Kippling wrote a poem called “The White Man’s Burden.”  It was during the Philippine-American War.  The poem suggested that while it involved sacrifice and thankless labor, it was the moral duty of whites to advance civilization into the lands of non-white folks, for their own good.  Military conquest was one of the key ways of doing this.

Half a century later Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would reflect on the bitter fruits of technical civilization, consumed with the conquest of space.

We carry personal and collective burdens.  We carry them through our days, from point A to point B, and on to points C and D.  They come to define how we move through time, how we inhabit the world.

It would be nice if Jesus’ invitation were one of simply laying down our burdens.  “Come to me, all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Lay your burden down and go forth free of weight and obligation.”

Instead, Jesus offers something like a burden-exchange program.  Laying down one burden and accepting another.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is good, and my burden is light”

Rather than simply lay down the white man’s burden, and walk away free of further responsibility, we are given the holy burden of decolonizing our minds and building just relationships.  Rather than simply doing our own trauma work, we are given opportunities to walk with others on the same journey, a good and holy, and even light burden.  Rather than just de-cluttering our lives, we are given the holy task of living fully into the moment, of taking up Wisdom’s invitation to her feast, entering her house, inviting friends.

A sanctuary in time.  Hearing the gentle and fierce call of Christ, into restoration, into the house that Wisdom is building.

“Have you not read…” | Sanctuary III | October 15

Texts: 1 Samuel 21:1-6; Mark 2:23-3:6

 

Let’s take a field trip in our imaginations.

On this field trip, we’re heading out of the city.  We’re going away from dense populations of people are toward dense populations of corn and beans.  On this trip we’re traveling not just through space, but also through time.  This is a magic school bus kind of field trip – if anyone’s familiar with those children’s books.  We’re traveling back a couple thousand years to 1st century Palestine.  As we get closer to our destination we notice that the agricultural fields and the places where people live aren’t as segregated as they are now.  There are small fields at the edges of villages and towns, with public paths running through them.  We get out of the bus and start walking.  We find one of these paths and notice that we’ve left behind the crops of the new world and are surrounded by barley and wheat – crops first domesticated in the Ancient Near East.  The wheat is fully mature.  The head of grain is heavy enough that the top of the stalk is bending under its weight.  It’s harvest season.  We veer off the path and head into the field.  We put our arms to our sides, open our hands, and feel the brush of the grains as we walk through them.

This, of all places, will be the site of an important dialogue about ethics, law, and theology.

These first three weeks of October have turned into a sanctuary trilogy.  In my own study I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how common a practice sanctuary has been, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and Israel, and likely before that into pre-history.  The first week focused on what sanctuary looked like before the church, and last week focused on the 1000+ year practice of sanctuary throughout medieval Christian Europe.

Sanctuary in the churches began largely as a form of penance and reconciliation.  The bishops protected and interceded on behalf of the wrong-doer as they sought to make things right with God and the one they harmed.  But it eventually lost its theological grounding.  It became domesticated, a routine function of the legal system.  It still protected one from the death penalty of royal justice, but in its later versions it typically involved a felon reporting in to a church, acknowledging their crime, and agreeing to leave the kingdom.  In England, after a traveling judge would visit the church and hear the case, the felon would be given safe passage to a port and sent on their way, never to return.  In other words, in a tremendous irony alongside what sanctuary in its present form is trying to protect from, sanctuary at the end of the medieval period involved the church serving as a holding cell for someone awaiting deportation.

As church and secular laws changed, sanctuary became more and more restricted until it was essentially outlawed.  Focus on the well-being of the soul, and repair of harm faded.  Focus on punishment as a form of deterrence, for the public good, became prominent.  Restorative justice was swallowed up by punitive justice.   In 1623, King James 1, passed this definitive legislation: “And be it so enacted by the authority of this present parliament, That no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”  If you’re looking for more irony, this is the same King James who commissioned the King James Bible.

Since then sanctuary has again shifted in its function.  It has become a minority practice, sometimes done in the shadows, which puts a new twist on the image from Psalm 91 from last week “In the shadow of the Almighty.”  Sometimes done in the open.  Sometimes done as an act of civil disobedience.  Some of the more prominent and heroic examples include the Underground Railroad, and villages like Le Chambon in southern France that sheltered over 5000 Jews from the Holocaust.  And of course the Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s that gave protection to Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil wars.

The scriptures for this week aren’t concerned with heroics.  We’re in the middle of a wheat field, remember.  But this is a site for a dialogue about the purpose of laws, and the site for Jesus staking out his approach to this.

So we’re in this wheat field, which gives us a front row seat to what’s happening in Mark chapter 2.  Jesus and his newly called disciples are walking through this very field, and they begin to pluck the heads of grain.  They’re spotted by Pharisees, who come over and challenge the lawfulness of this act.

What they don’t challenge might surprise us private property minded folks.  They don’t charge Jesus and his crew with trespassing, and they don’t charge him with stealing.

The Torah was clear that grain fields existed not just for personal profit, but for the public good.  They were part of the social safety net for the poor and the landless, resident aliens.  Landowners were actually restricted from harvesting all of their fields.  They weren’t even allowed to go back and pick up the grain they missed on the first round.  These were known as the gleaning laws.

Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Eight verses later there’s a little saying that may be more familiar to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Give it up for Leviticus!

It was not a problem for Jesus and his new friends to be exercising their gleaning rights in someone else’s field, but it was a potential problem that they were doing this on the Sabbath.  This event is contained within sacred time.  And in sacred time, according the Exodus 34:21, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest (you shall Sabbath).  Even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”

So the question is, Is this a violation of Sabbath law?  What to think of this micro-harvest by Jesus and the gleaners – which is probably what they were planning on calling their new band.  Jesus and the gleaners.

Before we get any further down this path let’s abolish any thought of this being a case of Christian freedom and liberty versus Jewish legalism.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Pharisees, as portrayed within the New Testament, are often caricatured to represent an extreme branch of the Jewish family tree.  The Pharisees were the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism which emerged later, and would come to teach unequivocally that “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not slaves of the Sabbath.  We should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person, so that person may observe many Sabbaths.” (Mechilta Shabbata 1, in Sabbath and Jubilee, by Richard Lowery, p. 124)

What was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath was a lively topic of discussion within first century Judaism, so when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he stays within the tradition.  He anchors his response within the scriptures in order to claim that what he’s doing is within, rather than outside, their common tradition.

The Pharisees implicitly cite Exodus 34 about keeping Sabbath even during the harvest, and Jesus cites another passage.

If you’ve ever been in one of these scripture-versus-scripture conversations, you know they can be exhausting and not a little bit frustrating.  Sometimes they’re important, sometimes it’s better to just let go, or walk away.

Of all the angles Jesus could have taken in the wheat field on the Sabbath, he does some creative interpretation of a story about David and the priest of Nob found in 1 Samuel 21.   “Have you not read…?” Jesus begins.  Well, of course they’d read the story.  They probably had it memorized.  But they probably had never seen it with the spin Jesus puts on it.

We have received overwhelming support for our decision to be a sanctuary church, but within the first couple days, we did get several emails and a voicemail into the office that had a similar message.  Each time the person said they were a Christian, but thought what we were doing was wrong because Romans 13 says we are to obey the governing authorities.  So who’s within the tradition and who isn’t?  Or, to ask it a different way, which part of the tradition are we using to interpret that part of the tradition?  Have you not read…  How would you fill in the blank to respond?   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or the command throughout the Torah to provide for the resident alien?  Or Jesus’ practice of aligning himself with outcasts?

Jesus references the story of David and the priest at Nob.  Rather than being about sacred time, Sabbath, it’s a story about sacred space and sacred objects.  It takes place in a temple rather than a field, and involves wheat in its value-added form, a loaf of bread.  And not just any loaf of bread, but the Bread of the Presence, which was set on the table in the temple and replaced every week, a sign of Divine hospitality.  But here’s the catch: according to the Torah, the Bread of the Presence that was replaced with a fresh loaf, was only to be eaten by the priest – also in Leviticus (Leviticus 24:5-9).

In this story, David comes into the temple and meets the priest Ahimelech.  David is not yet king, but has made quite a name for himself as a warrior.  He’s so popular, that King Saul is consumed with jealousy and has been trying to kill him.  David is now on the run, which explains why the text says Ahimelech is trembling when he speaks to David.  The priest is aware that if he gives aid to this upstart former-shepherd, he could be charged with harboring a fugitive.  This, too, is a story of sanctuary.  His fears come true in the following chapter.  A loyal follower of Saul – who had been in the temple during David’s stay – becomes an informer.  And Saul comes to Nob and kills the priests, including Ahimelech, for giving assistance to his enemy.

But Jesus doesn’t get that deep into the story.  He zeroes in on the fact that David is hungry, there is a pressing human need, and there’s no other bread in the temple except the Bread of the Presence, the holy bread.  Hunger, urgency, and mercy, take precedent over the Levitical holiness code, and priest Ahimelech gives the bread to David to eat.

Quoting from Mark: “’Have you not read,’” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’what David and his companions did when (they) were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’  Then he said to them, the Sabbath is made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

Jesus and his companions continue through that wheat field and walk right into a synagogue where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Before he does this, he poses this question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”  In this context, doing harm means doing nothing.  Which is more lawful?  To do good, or to do nothing, and thus do harm?

Maybe these are examples of civil disobedience.  Or maybe these are examples of Jesus claiming the compassionate stream of his tradition and inviting others to step into the stream with him.  Whatever it is, it’s an example within our tradition that poses important questions about the hierarchy of values that we live out.  Especially in an age in which sanctuary is in friction with the law of the land.

What is especially beautiful about these stories of Jesus and the gleaners and David and the holy bread eaters is that they affirm something that the Christian tradition has too easily discounted.  Rather than doing away with the Sabbath, and rather than doing away with the idea of holy space and holy bread, they affirm and expand holiness.  To offer bread to a hungry person is what makes bread holy.  To do good and heal and protect makes the Sabbath and all days holy.  It’s not that Sabbath disappears into the ordinariness of the rest of the week.  It’s that the holiness of Sabbath infiltrates the rest of the week.  The holiness of the house of God infiltrates ordinary space.

As we keep working at this thing called Sanctuary, my prayer for us is that we not view it merely as an exception for exceptional times.  Sanctuary is the norm that filters its way out into other parts of our lives, and transform us into the likeness of Christ.

Strangers becoming siblings | August 20 | Anniversary Sunday

Text: Ephesians 2:11-22

Last month, at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, there was a big timeline along one side of the delegate hall.  It was kind of like the one we have for CMC in the fellowship hall this weekend, but longer – in size and time span.  It was maybe 40 feet long, give or take.  It began in the 1500’s and led up to the present.  On it, were written key events in the Anabaptist and Mennonite story.  1525, Zurich Switzerland, the first adult baptisms.  1660; publication of the Martyrs Mirror, telling the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages;  1789, the first German speaking Mennonites settle in Catherine the Great’s Russia.  And so on.  We were about to begin the Future Church Summit, and denominational leaders wanted to help us remember where we had been before looking toward where we are going.

There was lots of open space on the timeline, with differently colored markers available for anyone who wanted to add a key event.  Walking through the centuries and reading the additions was a fascinating experience of what happens when you crowd source your collective history.  Alongside the more standard highlights of immigration waves, official church statements, and the creation of institutions, were less told stories, some painful.  Like the three boarding schools Mennonites used to run that tore Native American children from their families and culture.

A few people had felt unrestricted by the chronological range of the timeline, with someone writing at the very beginning, “And on the seventh day, God rested” and someone squeezing in even before that “Big bang.”  Someone else had extended the timeline forward two years to the next national gathering in 2019, writing “Membership Guidelines abolished by delegates.”  The Membership Guidelines currently in place call for the review of a pastor’s credentials who officiates at the wedding of a same-sex couple.

All in all, it was a lively space, a multi-layered snap shot of where the church has been, and might be going.

Feeling emboldened by the boldness of others, I picked up a marker and decided to write in some local history of national significance, fresh in my mind from scanning through our congregational archives in preparation for this anniversary weekend..  Finding the early 1960’s I wrote “Columbus Mennonite pioneers dual-conference affiliation status.”

As I stepped back to admire the updated history, much to my surprise, who should be walking along the timeline but Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.  He was checking the timeline against an extensive and somewhat official looking chronology of church events on his electronic device.  I pointed out to him the recent addition.  Even more to my surprise, he pointed to his device and said, “Yep, already had that.”  And sure enough, there it was.

If you have no idea what dual-conference affiliation means, that’s fantastic.  A very brief explanation is that there are two main historically separate Mennonite groups in North America.  When students in Columbus started meeting informally in the late 50’s and chartered membership in a new congregation in 1962, they were coming from both of these traditions.  Rather than choosing one, they decided to do something that had never been done – To work with the leaders of both groups and be a dual-conference affiliated congregation.  This became official in 1964.  (**Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City also became a dual-conference congregation around this time.)   It was the leading edge of a trend.  In 1969 two seminaries, one from each tradition, moved onto the same campus in northern Indiana.  In the decades that followed other congregations would become dual affiliated.  In February of 2002 the two groups officially joined to become Mennonite Church USA in this country, and Mennonite Church Canada.

Origin stories are important.  They not only set a trajectory for what follows, but they form an ethos.  They establish a way of being.  In some cases they can be as important as DNA, transferring messages from one generation of cells, or people, to the next.

So when Genesis begins with the Creator declaring creation to be good, and, indeed, very good, it’s more than just an evaluation of a completed project.  It’s a statement about the fundamental nature of materiality and embodiment.  Goodness, Divine goodness, courses through the fabric of existence, through the veins of our bodies, right here and now.

When Jews remember their founding story of being enslaved in Egypt, delivered from bondage, and given the Torah as a guide for living, it’s more than just an ancient event.  Each new generation is to identify with having been enslaved, and delivered, and to live in such a way that keeps themselves and others free from bondage.

When Jesus is gathered at table with his closest companions, and he takes, and blesses, and gives the bread and the cup, and names it as his body and blood, he is inviting everyone willing to receive it to become his body, to be enlivened by his life-blood.  And so we re-enter into this living memory every time we take communion.

These origin stories transfer messages from one generation to the next.  They tell the community who they are.

Now, granted, that’s a pretty elite class of stories to put alongside the founding of this congregation.  I don’t mean to overstate the case.

But here’s what I find especially noteworthy about the establishment of Columbus Mennonite Fellowship which became Neil Avenue Mennonite Church which became Columbus Mennonite Church:

In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  I’ll say that again.  In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  It had to pioneer a new way of being in the world.  Like that lovely phrase from John writing to his community in the letter we know as our New Testament book of 1 John.  He writes: “Beloved, what we will be has not yet been made known.”  It continues by saying, “What we do know is this: when it appears, we shall be like (Christ)” 1 John 3:2.  In other words, whatever shape this thing takes on, it’s going to look like Christ, and that’s enough to go on for now.

In my relatively brief time here, I’ve experienced an openness in this congregation to become something that has not yet been made known.  That founding spirit is still alive and well, transferred through all of you here, and the hundreds of others who aren’t.  And it’s a beautiful thing.  It’s not an easy thing, but it has a recognizable shape.  When it appears, it looks like Christ, and we learn more about who Christ is by walking towards it together.

Ephesians 2 has more to say about that shape.

It’s got the whole two becoming one thing going on, only rather than the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Old Mennonite Church, it’s Jews and Gentiles.

In Ephesians 2, the whole work of Christ is set up as the work of peace.  “For Christ is our peace,” this letter declares.  And how so?  How has Christ, in the words of Ephesians, “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us?”  It goes on to name the radical way the early Jesus followers came to interpret his brutal death on the Roman instrument of torture and capital punishment, the cross.  Rather than Jesus and everything he represented dying at the hands of the all-powerful empire, Rome killing Christ on the cross, it is Christ who kills hostility on the cross.  Hostility dies on the cross, thus making peace.  That’s what this letter to a little group of believers in the city of Ephesus proclaims.

Christ is our peace.  A peace beyond the peace of Rome, now available to all who wish to enter.  A peace not founded on a reign of fear and terror, the supremacy of one group over another.  A peace founded on a vitality and depth of being that even death can’t kill.

And the result of this peace, is, as verse 15 says, “one new humanity.”  Humanity 2.0 we might say.  Humanity beyond categories of us and them, Jew and Gentile.  Perhaps even beyond homo sapiens, which means “clever human.”  Christ opens up the way for a new humanity, homo pacificum, peaceful human.

Ephesians has a really, really high view of the church.  It proposes that the church is to be nothing less than a manifestation of the new humanity, an embodiment of peace, a post-hostility society in miniature.

I wish the timeline of church history was one of ever greater peace among ourselves, and justice in the world.  I wish even just the timeline of our little spiritual tribe, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, whose namesake wrote the words to the hymn, “We are people of God’s peace…” I wish we could get this thing at least mostly right.  The two that became one in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA have already reverted back to 2, or 3 or 10 or more depending on how you count.  And hostility may have been crucified on the cross, but its phantom is on the loose, newly emboldened on the streets of this country in the form of white supremacy.

I wonder if the present moment is calling on us again to become something that does not yet exist.  To not just look for a category to claim as our flag, but to help pioneer a different way of being, and thus make peace.  What you will be has not yet been made known.

There’s the joke about the seminary student who asks her professor how many points a good sermon should have.  The professor replies, “At least one.”  I’m not sure how many points this sermon has had, but I’ll end with at least one.

It’s a phrase that comes out of this Ephesians 2 passage, and it’s something I see this congregation doing all the time, something that springs from its origins.  A number of folks told stories last evening that fit right into this theme.  After celebrating the death of hostility and the possibility of a new humanity, the writer of Ephesians says, “For you are no longer strangers, but…members of the household of God.”

Strangers becoming siblings.  That’s the movement I see happening throughout the entire story of this congregation, starting from the very beginnings.  Strangers becoming siblings.  People who were previously strangers to one another join together in worship, take care of each other, and share in a common mission of peacemaking and justice-doing.  And, over time, the strangers become siblings.  Not that siblings live in a state of peaceful bliss.  But siblings share a commitment to each other’s well being.  Siblings share a household, and share a story.

And when strangers become siblings, you can’t quite predict what’s going to result.  What new thing God might do among us.  What new shape it might take.  What we do know, is that when it appears, it will look like Christ.  And Christ is our peace.

The music of grace | July 30

Twelve Hymns Project: Amazing Grace

Texts: Exodus 34:5-9; Acts 9:1-9

Joel and Abbie Miller

 

Joel

Anne Lamott wrote: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Maybe this helps explain the popularity of “Amazing grace.”  The song has been so widely embraced, it spans all kinds of communities that otherwise have little in common, religious and secular.  We are at so many different places – in our life experience, in our ideas about the world.  Grace meets us where we’re at, and so, it seems, does this song that features grace as its protagonist.

A case in point for this breadth of appeal is that these lyrics, written by an English former slave ship captain, John Newton, have also become adopted among the African American spirituals.  Descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers need not understand all the mysteries of grace in order to know we need it.

Abbie

The hymn “Amazing Grace” as we know it, has a grace filled history as well.  It was originally written as a reading or poem that may have been chanted instead of sung.  It was not even seen as one of John Newton’s finest works in Britain.  One biographer calls Newton , in reference to this song, an “unashamedly middle brow lyricist for a low brow congregation.”  Out of the 150 words, only 21 are more than one syllable.

Despite this, the song took hold in the United States during the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing. Amazing Grace was used during tent revival meetings to punctuate fervent sermons, with added repetitive verses.  It was sung to around 20 different melodies before it became widely known and published with a melody named “New Britain”.

The hymn was printed in hymnbooks passed out to soldiers and used for services and funerals during the civil war.  It is considered a “paradigmatic Negro spiritual” because it expresses the joy felt at being delivered from slavery and worldly misery. Harriet Beecher Stowe first recorded the last verse in her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…”  Amazing Grace was translated into other languages as well.  While on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as a way of coping with ongoing tragedy, and a version of Amazing Grace translated into the Cherokee language became very popular.

Amazing Grace continued to give soul to the Civil Rights movement and was recorded by Mahalia Jackson as well as used as a marching song by Fannie Lou Hamer.  It has been recorded 7,000 times by a diverse group of singers, secular as well as religious.  Amazing Grace has been sung everywhere from Carnegie hall to Woodstock.  Johnny Cash often sang it during his prison concerts, he said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free.  It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Joel

Anne Lamott has written openly about her struggles with addiction, the challenges of motherhood, and the general difficulty and wonder of being human.  Grace was a strong enough thread through it all that she included it in the book title: Grace (Eventually).

It would be a good title for the life of John Newton as well.  The song says, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”  It sounds like a sudden conversion experience.  But his story is much more one of grace eventually than grace suddenly.

His initial conversion experience, as he later told it, was aboard a ship, during his slave trading years.  He was in his early 20’s.  His ship, The Greyhound, was in the North Atlantic and ran into a massive storm.  Newton feared for his life and did what lots of people do when they fear for their life.  He prayed, and begged God for mercy.  He survived the storm and landed his ship two weeks later in Ireland.

It was a wake up call for Newton, and he started giving more attention to prayer and the Bible.  He began treating his crew, and his African cargo, with more kindness.  But if that was the hour he first believed, it didn’t equate to a radically transformed life, yet.  He continued to make his living off of the buying and selling and subsequent torture of human beings.  He was a slave ship captain for the rest of his 20’s.  He would later write about that time: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

After his sailing days Newton began to teach himself Latin and Greek and his friends were so impressed with his passion they encouraged him to become a priest, which he did.  As a priest, he became more and more ashamed of his former life as a slave trader.  He wrote over 280 hymns, one of them being Amazing Grace.  Sixteen years later after writing that, in 1788, when he was 63, he wrote a pamphlet called “Thoughts upon the African slave trade.”  It included detailed descriptions of the horrors that Africans experienced in the Middle Passage, aboard his ships.  It helped shift public attitudes toward slavery in England and became key to the abolitionist movement.  On the front cover of the pamphlet were the words of Jesus from Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Abbie

I grew up in a church that sang only acapella hymns.  And everyone “had their place in the choir”.   My memory of these hymns also contains the memory of where certain voices sat each Sunday and increased in volume as they sang their favorite line of the song.  I was surrounded by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great and great great aunts and uncles.   Throughout my childhood I sat with all of them and learned to know their voices.  When we sing some of the old hymns, memories awaken so deep that I am transported back to that time, when the people in that church were my whole world.

It seems like most of my early memories of singing are connected with a strong sense of community, familiarity and learning about music making rather than specifically connecting to the words. I knew most of the hymns by heart, singing felt like a freedom during a service that was sermon centered.  I did have a special connection to Amazing Grace though.  The extravagant grace spoken of in the song was in stark contrast to some of the theology I heard from the pulpit and experienced in my life.  How far could this grace go?  Could grace, rather than guilt be the driving force behind a relationship with God?  I didn’t have the words to form these questions at the time, but I could feel myself being pulled in its direction.  I wasn’t comfortable with the strict way I was taught to separate myself from the “world”, was grace only for our group?

But I did see grace winding its way through my life, people helping us when we were struggling through my father’s depression, through conversations I had with my grandmother, through the open beauty of the kansas landscape and it’s sunsets.  Grace wasn’t something I expected or even looked for at the time, but when it appeared, I knew that grace was where I would eventually find my resting place.

Joel

One of the most dramatic conversions in the Bible is the story of Paul.  Paul was initially what we might today call a religious extremist, a hardcore fundamentalist.  As if to underline its importance, the book of Acts tells his conversion story three different times.

Paul, or Saul, was on his way to the city of Damascus, on the trail of fellow Jews, men and women who belonged to “the Way” as the early Jesus movement was called.  On his way, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and has a mystical encounter with Christ.  The whole thing leaves him in pretty bad shape.  He’s blind and doesn’t eat or drink for three days.

His companions lead him into Damascus where Saul has another encounter, this time with a living and breathing human being – Ananias – one of those people of the Way Saul was hunting.  Ananias enters the house where this religious extremist is staying, and reaches out his hands and rests them on Saul’s shoulders – Saul’s thirsty and hungry and blind body.  Ananias’s first words to him are “Brother Saul.”  This greeting corresponds with Saul being able to see again, something like scales falling from his eyes.  An enemy becomes a brother.  And Saul starts humming, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Paul would go on to write much of what we have as the New Testament.  Grace is a sweet, sweet sound, and it fills the letters Paul addresses to those little communities of the Way, churches, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

But grace wasn’t a new idea.  Grace, by definition, is a divine gift.  It preceeds human action.  It is that which makes human action, and life itself possible in the first place.  Grace was there from the very beginning.

When the Creator called the cosmos into being, it was an act of grace.  When the God of Genesis 1 declares that creation to be good, it is a sign of grace.  When Abraham and Sarah become the father and mother of a people meant to bless all nations, it is an act of grace.  When the Hebrew people are brought out of slavery, and Moses receives the Ten Commandmants on Mount Sinai, those words, etched in stone, begin not with a human action, but with a Divine action, with grace.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery:  Therefore …”  Christians are accustomed to thinking of that as the introduction to the Ten Commandments, but in the Jewish counting, that counts as the first, and what follows is 2-10.  First comes grace, then comes our response.

The Psalmist repeatedly banks on grace in crying out to God.  The prophets are not always graceful in their delivery, but their imaginations were charged with the grace that called them to speak on behalf of the vulnerable.

Grace is a thick unbroken thread that runs from creation, through Christ, through Paul and Newton and Lamott, to us.

Abbie

I believe music itself is an act of grace within the story of human existence, a universal language that can include words, elevate them and transcend them into a realm of memory and lived experience.  In the last 20-30 years, scientific study of how our brains perceive and create music has come to suggest that it is a “biologically deeply ingrained function.”  The brain has neural circuitry that is dedicated to music.  Music is more than “icing on the cake of human evolution after basic biological needs and developments were satisfied.”  Our brains were formed by and for music and music making.

Music can be processed bilaterally, using both sides of the brain at the same time.  Rhythm, melody, emotions, memory, lyric analysis; all of these things can be processed during one song.  There is also the full body experience of producing sound and receiving the reverberations of sound. Our brain can process music when we are not aware of it.  Even infants express preference for certain types of music and can discriminate tempo and process pitch.

My training and background is in music therapy, which is the therapeutic use of music to attain non-musical goals.  I have worked in a variety of settings with the elderly and with children.  One of the things that always amazed me was the speed with which music can build relationships.  Something as simple as accomplishing a note in unison or playing a steady beat together can create a connection. The connection created through music makes a pathway for healing, motivation and order.  Sometimes the connection only lasts for the duration of the song and sometimes it continues.  The ability to connect through music has always seemed like an act of grace to me.  A surrender to the creation of something bigger than ourselves.

Joel

Karma says what goes around comes around.  You reap what you sew.  Everything you put out will come back to you, good or bad.

Grace plays a different game.  In the words of U2, singing about grace, “She travels outside of karma.”

Grace messes with the equation, breaks the formula, presents itself to us unsummoned.

Grace is what makes the person who thinks they can see realize they’re blind.  Grace is what helps the blind see.  Grace is the energy to do something about what we see.

Grace is the thick thread that keeps us tethered to God, despite ourselves.  Grace keeps us tethered to each other, despite ourselves.

It meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us where it found us.  Grace is the beautiful mystery meant to be experienced rather than understood.  Sung, rather than explained.

In the world, there is a parable | July 23

Twelve Hymns Project: HWB 614 In the bulb there is a flower

Text: Matthew 6:25-29

Three times a year Mennonite Central Committee publishes its Washington Memo.  It’s a little six page pamphlet.  Each one focuses on a key social or political area of concern, giving historical background, policy principles for addressing the situation, ways MCC is involved, and ways for the reader to pray and act for peace.  We get it in the church office.

The spring/summer 2017 issue is about US/North Korea relations.  The cover page includes a large picture of an agricultural field with mountains in the background.  On the ground and in the air are a number of birds, cranes.  With MCC’s permission, we’ve used that image for today’s bulletin cover.

Cranes, MCC Washington Memo, Vol XLIX no 2

The cover page of the Washington Memo includes a caption beside this picture that says this: “View from South Korea into North Korea.  Red crowned cranes are an important symbol on both sides of the border of longevity, purity and peace.  The cranes thrive in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the countries because of the relatively undisturbed habitat.”

Seeing this, I felt myself drawn into something resembling a parable of Jesus.  Out of curiosity I did some online research on these cranes and their place in the Korean peninsula.

It turns out the Smithsonian Magazine did an article on red-crowned cranes back in April of 2011.  It’s title and opening line is this: “The DMZ’s thriving resident: The Crane.  Rare cranes have flourished in the world’s unlikeliest of sanctuary, the heavily mined demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.”

It turns out…this is a complex parable.  More on that in a bit.

Parable was a favorite form of teaching for Jesus.  Parables frequently, but not always, reference the natural world and invite the hearers to consider the wisdom on display.  Parables are playful.  They spark the imagination.  They confront one’s way of seeing the world with a challenge to see it another way.  But the meaning isn’t always obvious.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him why he spoke in parables.  He responded by saying: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”  Jesus’ words are a reference to the call narrative of Isaiah that we looked at last week.  Isaiah was called to speak to a people who could see, but not understand.  Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time, and even if our eyes work, our hearts and minds don’t.  Parables bring a yellow highlighter marker to the landscape and say: “pay attention here.”

From our reading today: “Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither labor nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

I also wonder if Jesus’ use of parables was part of his subversive mission of bringing good news to the poor.  Illiterate peasants were dependent on the elite literate class to mediate the words of Scripture to them, but the world of experience and creation was on full display in front of them, accessible, a holy text of continual commentary on the kingdom of God.  Jesus finds the holy in the ordinary, wisdom in seeds, and coins, sheep, and treasure, even weeds.  And birds.

Consider the red-crowned crane.

The Smithsonian article reports that they are one of the rarest birds in the world.  Less than 3000 survive in the wild.  A major cause is loss of habitat.

Between 1950 and 1953, over three million people died in the Korean War.  The armistice in 1953 ended the fighting and created the DMZ, a strip of land 160 miles across the peninsula, two and half miles wide, a demilitarized zone, DMZ, between the North and the South.  Despite the armistice, there was no peace treaty, so the two nations are still technically at war.  It’s been widely reported that when President Obama was debriefing our current President on foreign affairs, he named North Korea as the biggest threat to US security.

There’s no industrial or agricultural development allowed by either side in the DMZ.  It serves as a buffer zone for the humans.  For the red-crowned cranes, it serves as a sanctuary.  A temporarily undisturbed habitat.

The cranes are migratory.  They are trespassers of human created borders.  They are boundary crossers.  They are light footed, light enough to walk without threat among the thousands, perhaps a million landmines in the DMZ, installed with the express purpose of destroying life.  But they can’t destroy the cranes, which parade over them unharmed.  The cranes are revered by both sides and are a symbol of peace.  There are conservationists from the North and South working together, however cautiously, to protect and expand the crane’s habitat.  Consider the red-crowned crane.

Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time.

Today’s hymn feels something like a rapid fire series of mini-parables – a parable-infused stream of consciousness.  In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free.    In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be.  There’s a song in every silence.  There’s a dawn in every darkness.  How many parables is that?  And that’s only half the song.

It’s fitting that this hymn got a lot of votes from children.  Children are naturally curious.  Kids are able to see things that adults may have stopped perceiving.  They ask questions we may have stopped asking.  Children are inherent boundary crossers because they are not yet enculturated into a militarized world that has zones.  If we pay attention, we may find that children are themselves parables, infused with wisdom, ready to be seen and heard.  Just make sure they’re old enough before you give them a yellow highlighter marker or it may end up all over your wall.

Parables are all around, but they require work on our part.  We are meaning making creatures, and parables are a dynamic interaction of environment and human consciousness.  We touch the world with our consciousness, we choose to find meaning amidst the chaos, amidst the violence, amidst a natural world that does not necessarily always reflect virtue.  Not every observation is hopeful.  We have a tremendous amount of power to choose what we find instructive and what we don’t wish to imitate.

A line from Wendell Berry speaks to this.  It’s more of an un-parable than a parable.  He wrote: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”  Consider the economy of rats and roaches, and do otherwise.

It’s at this hinge of we do and don’t learn from the non-human world that the living parable of the red-crowned cranes gets especially interesting, and complex.

We long for peace among the peoples of the earth, peace in the Korean peninsula included.  But here’s the catch.  If there is ever to be peace between North and South Korea, the agreements of the Demilitarized Zone would be lifted, the land suddenly a candidate for development.  The Smithsonian article notes that “In the event of reunification, a huge port is proposed for the DMZ’s Han River estuary, where white-naped cranes winter; a reunification city is planned” as well.  Development pressures would be tremendous.  From the perspective of the dwindling red crowned cranes and other species who have found refuge in the DMZ, conflict among humans, rather than cooperation, at least in this case, has shaped up to be a good thing.

Conflict among the humans is not a good thing, but cooperation among the humans can and has put us in conflict with the larger forces around us.

And there’s a parable for that.  It’s an old, old parable.  We don’t know how old, but the biblical material situates it even before the Patriarch and Matriarchs, before Abraham and Sarai and their offspring.

It’s found in Genesis 11 and goes like this:  Once upon a time everyone on earth spoke the same language.  They all settled down in one area together, and had a big idea.  “Let’s make bricks.  And let’s stack those bricks, one on top of another, to form a massive tall tower, that reaches all the way to heaven.  We’re going to make our mark.  We’re going to be remembered forever.  And they were so clever, and good at planning and communication, that’s what they did.  They started to build a massive city and a massive tower.

Now the Lord came down from the heavens to check up on this curious species, the humans.  The Lord was all about cooperation and collaboration, was pleased that large clay legos inspired her kids to play so well together, but was faced with a dilemma.  If they can do this, what else might they do with their powers?  So the Lord made a difficult decision.  The Lord broke up the mono-culture, and cast a vote for linguistic diversity.  The humans now spoke many different languages, and could no longer make their plans and built their great tower.  They were scattered all over the face of the earth, in smaller tribes.  And the place where they had once tried to build their tower to the heavens was called Babel, which means confused.

That’s more or less how Genesis 11 tells it.

In our time the effects of Babel are being rapidly reversed.  We can understand one another and cooperate and collaborate on an unprecedented scale.  There are still places of conflict where we tear down rather than build up, but more and more towers go up every day.  And with them more and more of the other species retreat into diminishing habitat.

I suggest that the question of the parable is, Can we cooperate with one another in such a manner that the Lord of mercy and justice would not want to disrupt?  Can we make peace with each other without declaring war against nature?  Will we merely see, or will we also perceive?  Will we merely hear, or will we also listen to the parables that seeds, and the polar bears, and the ash trees, and the honeysuckle are trying to tell us?

Consider the parables of Jesus.  Consider the parable of the tower of Babel.  Consider the parable of the red-crowned crane.  Consider the words of today’s hymn: “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery.”

 

 

Be thou my vision | July 16

Twelve Hymns Project: Be thou my vision, HWB 545

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

“Be thou my vision” is a prayer.  It’s an ancient prayer.  The language feels old.  When’s the last time you were having a conversation and found yourself saying “naught be all else to me save that thou art?”  I haven’t decided yet whether I know what that means.  But we sing it.  One of the wonders of setting our prayers to music is that we say things, we sing things, without having to understand everything we’re singing.  Sometimes the music and the rhythm of the words are enough to make it a prayer.

The English feels old, but the song is Irish through and through, in text and in melody.  What we have is just a translation.  The original is old enough that no one’s quite sure how old.  It may go as far back as the 6th century, words of an Irish poet, Saint Dallan.  Or maybe it was written a couple hundred years after Saint Dallan and just got attributed to him.  The oldest surviving manuscripts of this Irish prayer are from the 10th or 11th centuries.

Before Saint Dallan, around the year 401, a young man and his family were walking along a beach in the Western part of Britain.  They were interrupted by a fleet of boats, Irish warriors.  The warriors demolished the nearby village and captured the young man, taking him back to Ireland and selling him to a local warlord.  The young man’s name was Patricius.

Patricius was enslaved as a shepherd, spending his time in the wild with his master’s animals, exposed to the weather and foraging for food just like the animals he kept.  He did this for six years.  During that time he had an awakening toward the Christian faith he had grown up with.  He prayed constantly.  Feeling led by the Spirit to do so, he fled 200 miles to the south and got on a ship.  He escaped Ireland, back the Britain, went to a monastery to study for the priesthood, found his way home.  And there, after many years, heard a voice calling him to “come and walk again among us.”  He took this as the voice of God, calling him back to Ireland.

Some of the details of his life are about as fuzzy as the origins of the text of “Be thou my vision,” but it seems that Patricius went about his mission work in Ireland by building monasteries which became places of refuge and transformation in an incredibly violent Irish culture.  The monasteries were places of spiritual formation, but also developed their own economies with craftsmen and farmers and cloth makers and artists.  In that economy shepherds were not slaves, but part of the fabric of the community.  A recent article in the Christian Century telling the story of Patricius, Saint Patrick, referred to these monasteries as “outposts of God’s kingdom.”  They provided a vision of the new heavens and new earth already being realized.  In this way, Ireland was converted to Christianity.  (“The gospel in a violent culture,” June 7 issue, p 31.)

Perhaps Saint Dallan, several generations after Patrick, was within one of those monasteries, praying with his eyes open, when he wrote the prayer we have translated as “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art.  Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

I suppose every hymn is a prayer, but some of our hymns, like this one, are addressed directly to God, using that old word, “Thou.”  This is the seventh of our twelve hymns, and the first to be thoroughly oriented to God in this way.  The other two that will speak not just of God, but to God are “Rain down;” “Rain down your love on your people.”  And “Come thou fount of every blessing.  Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”  In other songs we’re singing to each other: “Will you let me be your servant.”  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Even songs like “My life flows on” and “Amazing Grace” are songs that have us proclaiming these things to one another.  They speak of God, but not to God in the second person sense – “you,” “your,” “yours,” or, in our case today, “thou,” “thy,” “thine.”  Even the ultimate Mennonite praise anthem, “Praise God from whom,” the grand finale of this series, is addressed, technically, not to God, but to “all creatures here below,” who are being summoned to do the praising and the hallelujah-ing, Amen.

It’s a good question to ask while singing a hymn.  Who are we singing to?

And there’s part of the catch with prayer, sung or spoken.  Because God, the Divine, the Holy, is no ordinary who.  Not just a larger, stronger, more loving, better version of ourselves.  Those who study and think and write about these things frequently remind us that what we refer to as God is not so much a being as Being itself.  Characterized by perpetual relationship rather than singular existence.  Closer to nothing, no-thing, not-a-thing, than something.

In prayer, we address something, someone beyond our categories.

When we sing, “Be thou my vision,” who, where, what are we talking to?

For the prophet Isaiah, Thou was an overwhelming, life altering vision.  At least that once, told in Isaiah chapter six.

Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple and saw a vision of a god so large that the hem of its robe, just that bottom part, filled the entire temple, a container far too small for something so grand.  Fiery beings called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”  There is shaking and smoke, and Isaiah is overcome.

The vision is too much, and he is too small, too inadequate to even take it in.  But one of those fiery beings comes over and touches Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar.  A holy kiss.  And that’s enough.  Isaiah is proclaimed worthy.  The voice asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah, perhaps without even realizing it, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me.”  Isaiah is then commissioned to speak to people who, he is told, will not listen.

Isaiah’s vision involves being overwhelmed, then being assured and comforted, then being sent on a mission that by all reasonable measures, will fail.

Had Isaiah been singing “Be thou my vision” right before this, a wise elder may have leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Rather than converting an entire continent, like Patrick, Isaiah’s prayer sends him on a mission that looks like an exercise in futility.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.”  (Source: The Wisdom of Heschel)

It strikes me that prayer is also a great risk.  We risk that it goes unanswered.  Even more, we risk that it is answered.

“Be thou my vision…Be thou my wisdom….be thou my true word…be thou my dignity, my delight.”

We are those who, in the words of Heschel, have been given the “inconceivable surprise of living.”  But we don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know how to do it.  We are trying to walk in the way of Jesus and resist violence.  Resist being reduced to consumers.  Resist despair.  We don’t know what will result, but we address the Divine, if we dare, as thou.  Or, to update the language, “you.”  It’s intimate language.  The kind of language that opens our hearts.  We do not merely speak of the Divine, we speak to it.  The Glory fills the whole earth, it is much grander than us, and we are as nothing before it, and yet we are invited to address it as “You.”  You be my vision.  You be my wisdom, my language, my dignity.  I am listening.  We are listening.  I to you.  You to us.  We are praying.  To You.  And when we pray, there is always the risk that we will be addressed in return, Patrick and Isaiah sent into the unknown.  Here we are Lord.  Send us?